Italy in the age of Napoleon was too absorbed in war and politics, too poor in public spirit or private philanthropy, to generate such art, and particularly such architecture, as had exalted Italy when all Europe was sending “Peter’s pence” to the popes, and Florence, Venice, and Milan, as well as Rome and Naples, were rich and self-ruled. Some outstanding structures were raised: Luigi Cagnola’s Arco della Pace in Milan (1806–33); Antonio Selva’s Teatro la Fenice in Venice (1792); Cosimo Morelli’s Palazzo Braschi at Rome (1795), with its stately staircase; and Antonio Niccolini’s imposing façade (1810–12) of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. There was no memorable painting, but Italy’s sculptors were inspired by the excavations at Herculaneum to discard the eccentricities of baroque and the exuberance of rococo, and to seek the grace and calm and simple line of classic statuary. One of these sculptors left us work that still stops the eye, tempts the touch, and lives in the memory.
Antonio Canova was born in Possagno, at the foot of the Venetian Alps. Both his father and his grandfather were sculptors, specializing in altars and religious monuments. When the father died (1760) the grandfather took Antonio into his home, and later into his studio. The boy’s willingness to work and eagerness to learn caught the attention of Giovanni Falier, a patrician of Arsolo. Falier provided funds for Antonio’s study in Venice, and was rewarded with the youth’s first notable production, Orpheus and Eurydice.27In 1779, with Falier’s approval, he set out for Rome. From that center he studied the remains of ancient art. More and more he was won to Winckelmann’s interpretation of Greek sculpture as aiming to represent ideal beauty through perfect form and line. He dedicated himself to the revival of the classic style.
His friends in Venice persuaded the government to send him an annuity of three hundred ducats for the next three years. This neither spoiled him nor deterred him. He frankly imitated classic models, and sometimes seemed to equal them; so his Perseus and The Pugilist, both done in 1800, were the only modern works deemed worthy to stand in the Belvedere of the Vatican beside world-acclaimed productions of classical antiquity.28 His Theseus Slaying the Centaur (1805)—a colossal marble group now in the once Imperial Gardens of Vienna—could easily be mistaken for an ancient masterpiece, were it not for the exaggeration of muscles and fury. Canova was at his best in softer moods congenial to his character, as in the Hebe of the National Gallery in Berlin; here the daughter of Zeus and Hera is the goddess of youth, caught in the mobile grace of dispensing wine to the gods.
In this fruitful year 1805 Canova began the most famous of his statues—the Venus Victrix of the Galleria Borghese in Rome. He persuaded Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon, to pose for this sensuous figure. She was then twenty-five, at the perfection of her form; but we are told29 that the artist used only her face as his model; for the drapery and the limbs he drew upon his imagination, his dreams, and his memories. He finished the work in two years, and then exposed it to the judgment of the public and his peers. They marveled at its proud beauty and loving finish; here was no mere imitation of some ancient masterpiece, but a living woman of her time, and, in her brother’s judgment, the fairest. Canova made her a gift to the generations.
In 1802 Napoleon asked Canova to come from Rome to Paris. Pope Pius VII, having just signed a concordat with the Consul, advised Canova to go, if only as one more Italian conqueror of France. Of the several portrait busts that the sculptor made of Napoleon, the most pleasing is in the modest Musée Napoléon at Cap d’Antibes; there the young warrior is a veritable Aristotle of meditation. Unreasonably more famous is the full-length statue which Canova made in plaster and then carved in one block of Carrara marble on his return to Rome. It was sent to Paris in 1811, and was set up in the Louvre; but Napoleon objected to it, allegedly because the little Winged Victory placed in his right hand seemed to be flying away from him. The figure was packed away out of sight. In 1816 the British government bought it, and presented it to Wellington. It now stands, eleven feet high, at the foot of the stairway in Wellington’s London palace, Apsley House. Canova came to Paris again in 1810 to make a seated statue of Marie Louise. The result was not prepossessing, but Napoleon gave the departing artist funds to repair the Florence Cathedral, and for financing St. Luke’s Academy (for artists) in Rome. After Napoleon’s fall Canova was made head of the commission appointed by the Pope to restore to their original owners the art works that had been sent to Paris by French generals.
He stood at the top of the Italian sculptors of his time, and was surpassed in Europe only by the now venerable Houdon (1741–1828). Byron, who was more at home in Italy than in France, thought that “Europe—the world —has but one Canova,”30 and “Such as the great of yore, Canova is today.”31 Part of his acclaim may have been due to the neoclassic wave that brought him, like David—both helped by Napoleon—to acknowledged leadership in his art. But Europe could not long be content to imitate or duplicate the art of antiquity; soon the Romantic movement subordinated line and form to color and feeling, and Canova’s fame faded.
It should not be irrelevant to add that Canova was a good man, known for modesty, piety, and charity, and capable of appreciating his competitors. He worked hard, and suffered from the malarial air of Rome, and from carving massive monuments. In the summer of 1821 he left Rome, and sought clearer air and a quieter life in his native Possagno. There, on October 13, 1822, he died, aged sixty-four, mourned by all literate Italy.